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2005 December: Rolling Bridge, London by Thomas Heatherwick Studio

Good design is not just about good ideas, rolling with it, going with the creative flow; it is also about good execution. Great design comes when both factors combine. Individuals who repeatedly come up with new tactics, those who try to reinvent the wheel and more often than not succeed, are at best inspirational, and at worst downright irritating. In architecture, the prize arguably goes to Herzog and de Meuron, whose recent exhibition (AR July 2005) drew an observer to publicly deride their ‘incessant inventiveness’. In the slightly left-field world of architectural device design, the creative output of the Thomas Heatherwick Studio is equally challenging. You can almost hear the secret thoughts of their observers saying, ‘now, why didn’t I think of that?’

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Cross section - rolled out

When asked to design a retractable bridge, Heatherwick was not content to redress existing types: swing bridge, lifting bridge, or rigid retractable. Instead he came up with something completely new. Well almost; no single idea is ever generated in isolation. The closest precedent for this proboscis-like coil is perhaps the military bridge; the type that is rolled out when existing passes have been destroyed or that is used by emergency services in times of natural disaster, to give access for aid or evacuation. Sited in London’s Paddington Basin, this bridge rolls open, by slowly and smoothly unfurling. It mutates from conventional pedestrian platform into a circular sculpture, that sits comfortably on the canal bank when not required. The structure is pushed and pulled by a series of hydraulic rams set within triangular segments; challenging logic by pulling it open and pushing it closed. As it recoils, each of its eight segments simultaneously lifts, causing it to curl until the ends touch to form a perfect circle.

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Cross section - rolled in

The studio’s aim was to make function from movement. As such it can be stopped at any point along its journey, whether at the very start, when it looks as though it is hovering, or halfway through its opening path. Delightfully conceived, delightfully resolved, delightfully detailed, and delightfully made; don’t you just hate it?

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States of play: the bridge is stable in any position, as hydraulic rams push and pull

Fact File

Designer: Thomas Heatherwick Studio

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